It’s not crazy to put MSG in food that is delicious, high-quality and good for you!
I love the title of this post because the opposite seems to be the general perception these days. Basically, many people see MSG as a product most often found in food products that are highly processed, cheap, and low-quality. At the same time, they do not see how MSG can be part of more serious, upscale, and gourmet foods. I see a similar attitude among chefs. Some chefs are completely opposed to using MSG in food and see it as beneath their talents — a type of culinary cheating. They see MSG as not being wholesome and natural. Other chefs understand that MSG is completely safe and bumps up umami (delicious savory notes) in a recipe. At the same time, some of these same chefs still do not use MSG for fear of negative consumer feedback or their company’s policy.
Let’s take a moment to dissect these perceptions. On the scientific level, MSG is composed of sodium and glutamic acid. When this molecule comes in contact with the umami receptors in our mouth, our brain positively registers this as umami. It is this free glutamic acid (an amino acid) that is what our body interprets as umami. Free glutamic acid is readily available in umami-rich ingredients such as dried mushrooms (especially shiitake), aged cheeses, fermented sausages, kimchi, green tea, dashi, miso, soy sauce, fish sauce, ketchup, etc. MSG today is made by a bacterial fermentation (similar to yogurt, beer, and vinegar). The science is also clear that MSG is recognized as a safe ingredient by regulatory bodies across the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the United Nations.
MSG is the Purest Form of Umami
Yet, despite the basic science and the fact that umami is one of our five basic tastes, MSG is still relegated to the culinary back seat. At the same time, umami and umami-rich ingredients are all the rage in culinary circles. In other words, umami is cool while MSG is not. But this is a huge disconnect. MSG is the purest form of umami and contributes only umami with no additional flavors. Thus, it is extremely useful in the kitchen. Imagine if the same attitude prevailed around salt. Imagine if we saw the salt shaker as cheating or not in keeping the pedigree of serious chefs or cooks; to season foods, chefs and cooks would use salty foods, but would not actually sprinkle in salt crystals. Or, imagine if sugar was seen as uncool and only sweeteners like honey or maple syrup could be used to sweeten dishes. It would not make sense.
I use MSG in food unapologetically to add umami when I sense that a recipe needs it. I also use umami-rich ingredients when I want umami plus a specific flavor profile. For instance, in Thai food, I usually get the umami I need from fermented fish sauces of Southeast Asia. Adding MSG on top of the fish sauce would not contribute much as the levels of umami are already sufficient and in balance with the other components of the dish. Other times, I sense that a touch of pure umami is just what a dish needs and a sprinkle of MSG delivers the impact immediately. The point is that MSG is not a culinary pariah, but rather a powerful ingredient.
Gourmet food is all about making intriguing dishes that taste amazing. Umami is part of that equation as one of our five basic tastes. It’s time to add MSG to our flavor toolkit and recognize its power to contribute to gourmet dishes made from top quality local and specialty foods. If we see MSG as the vehicle to deliver higher levels of umami, then where we use it and in which recipes becomes the creative prerogative of the cook. So, try adding a hint of MSG to recipes that do not include high doses of umami-rich foods – and watch the level of deliciousness increase. Gourmet and MSG can indeed be best friends!
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For Further Reading…
My journey into cooking with umami and my understanding of MSG started in a surprising way. I was teaching charcuterie at a top culinary school. My class started at 6 AM with a short lecture in that first early hour of class. It was the day when the lecture covered various food additives that find their way into meat systems. Along the way, I made the comment…
Twenty-five years ago, a television channel dedicated solely to food came into our homes. Yes, I’m talking about the Food Network. At the time, the concept of watching culinary experts (24/7 no less) sharing their skills and knowledge — live and via video — was novel. Up until then, resources were limited to reading about the culinary world or practicing food preparation methods first-hand.